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"The Lament of the Wavering Bard"by Ville Lähde
"On the edges travelling, by the limits of senses the songs of lost memories unravelling
Songs of pining, longing, that old acquaintance to the Channel of Sorrow belonging
No sweet yearning, no fear inspiring
shall you find on this poetic path
The empty gaze of the one lamenting
only sings of the bard Wavering"
The main protagonist of this story isn't actually a character at all. He/She/It doesn't have a personality, conscious intellect, or even a physical body. In fact, it doesn't even have a name, because until know it's existence has remained virtually unknown. From now on I'll use the term Being while referring to it, for the sake of clarity, even though even this word is quite questionable in this case.
The closest approximation of the nature of the Being is "a present force", "presence", or "travelling ambience". There isn't clear knowledge of it's origins, or even if it is a unique phenomenon. Most likely it emerged from the thoughts and feelings of sentient beings at the moment of some great disaster, war, famine or drought - at least the Being remains closely connected and dependent on such thoughts and feelings. It "feeds" on thoughts of sorrow, fear and longing.
The Being travels its mindless routes on the thresholds of this world, at the edges and borders of "the Other Side" (since no serious study hasn't been made of the being, this naive term shall suffice). It nourishes itself by negative thoughts and feelings, which it is capable of arising in the minds of the sentient beings whom its trek passes. However, it doesn't create these feelings itself, since it has no will or internationality for such acts. Instead it is able to awaken ancient memories that are buried in the collective unconsciousness of sentient communities. The memories mustn't be alive and fresh, the Being often brings scattered and distorted images to the surface (for inspiration read Clive Barker's "Candyman"). The Being invokes the memories into the physical realm as insubstantial ghostly images, that are able to cause negative feelings and thoughts in the minds of the locals. The ghostly images don't have any consciousness, except the memories of the moment from which they are drawn. They are not interested in of capable of hurting people physically.
To "do" this the being will need a Catalyst, since it doesn't have a direct contact in this world itself. This catalyst is an archetypal mythical figure of the local culture. The Archetype isn't consciously known by the local people, it is more like a reflection or a metaphoric representation of their history/character/spiritual legacy. In this story the Catalyst will be the Wavering Bard. It symbolises the historical tension between the Traladaran and Thyatian people of Specularum, and the oral and musical traditions of the local culture. The latter is more important to the Traladarans.
During the course of the adventure the Wavering Bard will travel through Specularum, thus preparing the way, "a Channel of Sorrows", for the Being to travel on. As the Being is able to gather nourishment, it becomes more powerful. Accordingly the essence of the Bard will become more clear. Little by little the Bard develops a personality and some form of intellect and sentience. It will become aware of its true nature (a creation of the Being), and what's more important, it will start to write it's own songs. Even before the bard becomes more material, the local people might start "remembering" fragments of poems, smatterings of songs, that seem strangely familiar...
As the story unravels, the Bard gives the Being it's first real name, "the Grey Stream of Grief". The name is a description of the way how the Being seeks "anchor points" in the communities of Specularum and travels via them. The Bard will utilise this metaphor in the various ghostly images that it must awaken, the communal memories that were mentioned before - although the references to the Stream will always be symbolic and perhaps non-conscious.
The first ghost, "the Weary Water-diviner", represents how the Being is seeking a point of origin, "a spring", for its Channel of Sorrows at the outskirts of Specularum. The second ghost, "Elder Guardians", is connected to an old channel that has been dismantled ages ago, and to the soldiers who guarded it. This of course represents the Being's efforts to build a channel through which it could surge through Specularum. The last ghost, "the Knight of Griffon", is the perhaps clearest hint of all, even though it is still pretty vague. It was created by the bard not only to serve the Being, but also as a direct warning to the PCs. It will be their last chance to stop the Being before the Grey Stream of Grief will surge through Specularum with full strength.
If the Wavering Bard fails to warn the PCs of the danger and (reluctantly) manages to finish the Channel of Sorrows that the Being can use. The whole essence of the being rushes to Specularum. Behind its path it will leave hundreds of catatonic people, autistic children and insanity. The power and nourishment that it will get propels it to future paths, towards other Channels of Sorrow. The only remaining evidence of its passing will be the Wavering Bard, who will continue to sing its laments in the spiritual ruins of the city.
THE STRUCTURE OF THE ADVENTURE
The adventure is divided into three main sections, where the ghostly images that the Bard has created will appear in the city. Every section discusses the history of the images, the reactions of the local people, and the development of the Bard towards sentience and its attempts to warn the PCs. However, PCs like to fight against something else too that thin air and memories, so I've also devised some human adversaries, who try to take advantage of the situation. The DM will have to flesh out these adversaries her/himself. The DM is also advised to devise encounters with citizens who are disturbed by the presence of the Bard, the Being and the ghosts. This adventure will not be an easy one, so many PC groups might need some extra help. It is a rare thing to have to solve mysteries mainly by resorting to symbolic interpretation. The last part of the adventure discusses some ways to stop the Grey Stream of Grief.
PART ONE: The Weary Water-Diviner
The tale of the Weary Water-Diviner is one of the eldest stories of Specularum. It stems from the time when instead of the city there was only the small village of Marilenev. The water-diviner was an old man who was extremely proud of his profession. In times of drought he made a promise to the farmers of the village, that he would find a good spot for a well outside the village. With an easy laugh he made a promise: "And I shall neither sleep or drink, until my divining-rod bends to show water." Perhaps the poor man kept seeking at the wrong places, or his old age had corroded his gift, but he could never find the promised well.
The neighbours begged in vain for him to stop. After all, the farmers could always make the longer trip to the river. but the Water-Diviner wouldn't cease to seek. A whole week he wandered the fields near the village, until weariness, thirst and hunger took their toll. When his body was found, the villagers were astonished and horrified. It was withered and pale, and so dry that it wouldn't rot in the hot summer sun. Mere strength of will and duty had kept the bones moving even after death.
The ghost of the Weary Water-Diviner has appeared to the people living on the poorer western outskirts of Specularum for some time, when the PCs learn of it. The residents of the area have trouble sleeping, and they are seeling an awakening, inexplicable fear in their hearts. Small concerns tend to focus into larger ones, and old sorrows come fresh to the mind. Some people have even decided to move elsewhere (see later). In the end a leader of the local community contacts the Church of Traladara. They require a priest to perform rituals of exorcism. Since in the earlier city-adventures the PCs have made contacts with the church, this is one good way to bring the PCs in.
In this section of the adventure the PCs have little chance of changing the flow of events. Standard rituals of exorcism don't work. Information-divining spells and historical research can shed light on the ghost itself, but the cause remains hidden. The Water-Diviner cannot be harmed, except by strong magic. However it will always return the next day. After a few days or a week the ghost will disappear, but the mood it created will not go away. The Being has managed to create the first stretch of it's Channel of Sorrows. There is actually one way to banish the ghost, and if the PCs manage to find it early on, the effects of the Being's passing will be diminished. If a spring of water is created under the divining-rod of the ghost, it will stop, smile, bend down for a drink - and disappear into the wind.
The function of this part of the adventure is to give the PCs a chance to gather hints of the future. The stories of the Water-Diviner are almost forgotten, and the effects of the Being make people sullen and silent. The PCs will have to use their charisma and communication skills very well to gain information. Bribes of money are unlikely to work, helping the morose people in their grief is a better way (mending the shed, curing an illness etc.) The best way to get information is to seek the people who moved away from the area. Most of them are older people, who remember enough of the old stories to understand to get away. Perhaps they saw the ghost as a portent of a coming drought, or their own death. The DM is encouraged to flesh out this section by songs, poems and folklore of his own. However, seeking the people who have moved isn't easy, since there aren't any Halls of Records, not all streets are named etc. One has to find friends and relations, bring cups and cups of herbal tee, and listen to incoherent ramblings of the elders for hours along.
The Being itself will remain in the dark during this section, but the PCs might hear the Lament of the Bard that was given in the beginning of the adventure. Nobody remembers when they heard the song the first time, or if they even have heard it before, but it still seems strangely familiar. People of Specularum can recognise some elements of the city and its history in the song, but can't just put it into words. If the PCs seem too perplexed or frustrated, the DM can throw in a learned singer who can give them some tips.
THE MADMAN is the human opponent of this section. He feels compulsive need to follow the Water-Diviner around and defend it. Despite his rugged appearance he is a good speaker and has managed to rally around him a few street urchins, vagabonds and drunkards. They are a constant pain in the but for any investigator: they can give false information, pickpocket the PCs, and even attack them in the alleys. Defeating the madman isn't a hard task, but it might divert the PCs to a sidetrack for some time. He has nothing to do with the Water-Diviner or the Being.
Between this section and the next there will be a small pause, when the bard seeks a new archetype to animate. If the PCs are roaming the city, they may catch a glimpse of it/him. The bard travels towards the inner city from the "spring" that the Water-Diviner found. At this stage the bard resembles a shadow, which wavers in the edge of the senses. Silent, sad music may be heard. Still, nothing of greater significance takes place before the next section.
PART TWO: The Elder Guardians
At the time when the inner city walls were built, an irrigation channel stretched from the Mirror Bay to the northwestern fields. The channel was important to the farmers of the area, since they had never found enough wells. (For a reason long forgotten, they called this dilemma "the Water-Diviner's Curse". During the droughts the channel would become vital.
A bridge was built over the channel, and a city guard house by it. At that time the channel separated the residential areas or the poor and the noble folk, so the bridge was well-guarded. During an exceptionally dry year the poor people of the city rushed en masse to gather water from the channel, which would eventually threaten the water supply of the farmers. Famine was looming on the horizon. In the "Night of the streaming blood" the bridge guard had to turn its weapons against their own sisters and brothers, when a mob of desperate people tried to "steal" water or loot the houses of the nobles. The guards killed dozens and dozens. Torn by the memories of this deed, these ten guardsmen jumped to the channel, with boulders tied to their necks. The crop of the farmers was saved, there was famine, but the bitterness of the bloody night remained. Nobody remembered the guardsmen with gratitude.
The channel bridge and its guards appears in the middle of the marketplace during the rush hour. Ten ghostly men, donned in ancient armour and wielding halberds, stand on the bridge. A piece of rope is hanging from their necks, and they are crying bitterly. Even though the channel itself has been filled long ago, after good wells were found, the ground where the channel used to go gets a crimson hue. The people who are nearest to the ghostly image can hear the sound of running water and screams of anguish. As is to be expected, the marketplace is soon empty, as people flee the ghosts. The Guild of Merchants is horrified, and Stephan takes notice too, since the ghosts are pretty near his palace.
The effects of the ghosts are similar to the ones caused by the Water-Diviner, but they also bring memories of the close ones who died violent deaths to the surface. Those memories lack totally the peace of mind that time has brought - it is if as they happened before. The DM should note that this effect of the Being will also touch the PCs, who are bound to have friends who died violently.
As far as the purposes of the Being are concerned, the Bard has chosen an excellent spot. A lot of people live and move around the marketplace, so there is a lot of grief to be devoured. In addition to the PCs there are other parties who try to intervene: the city guard attacks the ghosts with no effect whatsoever. The guard then pressures Stephan to use the Elvenguard, which will be as futile. Many people start saying that the Mage's Guild should help, but the guild will offer mainly help in knowledge of history and divining magic. Teldon is convinced that direct attacks would be useless. However, if the PCs have gained contacts in the guild, for example in the adventure "Omens and Portents", they can rally aid for attacks on the guards. But even the most powerful magical assaults can drive the ghosts away for one day only. Nothing seems to effect the image of the bridge. Purification spells may remove the hue of crimson from the ground, but in any case after a few days it will be replaced by a ghostly image of grey running water.
One thing the PCs could do is to give aid for the people who have been touched by the Being's power. Decreasing fear and anguish will diminish the damage in the future, if they fail to stop the Grey Stream of Grief.
It will be much easier this time to find explanations to the ghostly image from historical lore. If the PCs are persistent enough, they might even find the link to the Weary Water-Diviner. By discussing with the affected people they can find out the thematic connection with the ghosts and the feelings aroused by them: loss of close ones, remorse, even suicidal tendencies. But more important is that the Bard is starting to gain sentience. During the days when the bridge and the guards appear, the bard can be seen prowling the nearby streets, singing at the edges of senses. Slowly it gains its full manifestation: its face resembles both Traladarans and Thyatians, maybe halfbreed the most. Its clothing switches between Thyatian and Traladaran also, being old-fashioned all the time. Its "body" is constantly wavering as if on the edges of existence, and people near it can hear music, which seems to be a blend of the traditional elements of both people (any bard can tell this). No more hidden songs are revealed, as the bard starts singing its songs directly to the people. The following song is a direct hint to the PCs, to whom the Bard appears, pleading symbolically for help.
Seldom does the stream run, the grey one without rapids on its way
To its torrents many drown, although none touch its water any day
Even wise ones may overlook the flood
however it may warn thee
Who would have known the danger stood
where river sought to be
- at last -
But in vain shall men seek the cause
of the danger, the sorrow thief,
if ignorant they be to the dreary course of the Grey Stream of Grief
At this stage the PCs should have been in contact with the Bard and its ghosts many times, and so also connected to the power of the Being. One night they will have a dream in which the essence of the Being manifests itself to them. It would be best if the DM explained the dream to each player separately, perhaps during the break between gaming sessions. In the dream the PCs have a choice, which should pretty much show that it is not a regular dream. The choices made will not affect reality directly, but they will determine how the Bard will relate to each of the PCs in the future.
THE DREAM: The dreamer is standing in the middle of fields spotted by farmhouses and wheat fields. Behind him (or her) a mumble of thousands of voices may be heard, but the dreamer is unable to turn and look. He can sense the stare of thousands of eyes from behind. In front of the dreamer appears suddenly an empty channel, and under his feet a dam. Now it is possible to look back, where a grey stream is splashing against the dam. The dreamer can sense the unending thirst and hunger of the stream, but doesn't know what it lusts after. He feels utterly sad. Then on either side of the channel he can see thousands of souls - even though he doesn't know how he has recognised them as souls - and can share in their joys, sorrows and countless other feelings. But by the edges of the channel there is only sadness and sorrow. The sorrow of the souls and the hunger of the grey stream tear at the dreamer, to different directions. Suddenly the dreamer notices that he is holding the lever for the dam gates.
The dreamer gets to decide whether to open up the dam gates or not. The dream ends in the decision, without no hint of the end result. In the future the Bard refuses to communicate with those who opened the gate. Also it is harder for them to perceive the manifestation of the Bard. If it happens so that all PCs elect to open the Channel of Sorrows for the Being, voe the PCs. They are on their own, and the bard has failed to help them. It is likely that they can only alleviate the suffering caused by the Being, unless they are extremely lucky.
THE CULT is the human opponent in this section. Its leader is a former priest of the Church of Traladara, who renounced his faith to study forbidden lore. His closest follower is a mage who was cast out of the Guild (what if it is Kiril from the last Specularum adventure?). All followers of the cult are insane in various ways, and the cultist master controls them by using the power of the Being. Ironically he taps into the power by channelling it through the minds of the cultists and focusing it into a statue that depicts the Bard. The statue was carved out of the old foundation stone of the channel bridge - the one that has now appeared into the marketplace. The cultist master dug out the statue one night with the help of his mage follower. The object of the cult master is to stop the flow of the Grey Stream of Grief and make the statue into kind of a valve, one which he can control. To get into this goal he is gathering people who are anguished by the Being as his followers.
The leaders of the cult have no deep knowledge of the Being or the role of the Bard, but their notes can give some good clues (this is again up to the DM). The cult sees the PCs as a direct threat and will surely try to eliminate them. The Wavering Bard could destroy the power of the statue, but first the cultists must be gotten out of the way. See, the Bard is also afraid of the statue. By using it the cult master could even destroy its emerging sentience and personality. Also, the bard would be a great source of power for the cult master, who will try to capture it into the statue. If the PCs fail to stop the cult, the danger to the city might in the end be greater than the one posed by the Being. If the cult controls the Being, it can cause madness and hopelessness at will. The PCs will no doubt need all of their friends in the city to crack this one.
The next stage of the adventure takes place fairly soon. After four nights and days the bridge guards will disappear, but the wavering image of the bridge remains. The only possibility is to dig up the second foundation stone of the bridge (two pillars, one stone for each), bless it and bury it in sanctified ground. However, the ground in the area or the old channel will remain grey, and the anguish remains in the people near the market.
PART FOUR: The Knight of Griffon
The Knight of Griffon refers to the more recent history of the city, a hero of the early days of the Thyatian occupation. After the Thyatians arrived, a lot of their troops were tied up in smothering small rebellions all over the country. Brigands and bandits were a constant threat, so many troops were sent to guard the few roads. So Marilenev/Specularum itself was left pretty defenceless. It didn't take long for river brigands to start harassing the people living on the beaches of Mirror Bay. The untrained militia had no chances against their swords and arrows. Several nasty battles took place before the brigands were driven away. The hero was one lone Knight of the Griffon, who belonged to the churchly orders of Thyatians (a predecessor of the Karameikan Order of Griffon). He was the only one of his order to come and aid the Traladarans under siege, and under his leadership the brigands were beaten. The final battle took his life. The fishermen carried his body to a secret grave that has remained hidden to this day. It is told that the leader of the fishermen told the head of the order: "He was the only one of you who had heart and honour. He shall watch over us even after his sun has set."
The ghost of the Knight symbolises the final battle, the final opportunity of the PCs to stop the Grey Stream of Grief from surging to the Channel of Sorrows that the Bard has prepared. It is more than likely that the Bard has chosen this memory consciously. The Knight manifests as a restless ghost who walks on the beaches of the Mirror Bay. Again and again he stops to scream voiceless orders to invisible troops, sharpen the blade of his sword and peer into the horizon. This ghostly image arises feelings of pure terror and loss of the sense of security.
The above mentioned events are well known by the people of the harbour, so it is easy to gather information of them. This time the both churches take an active interest in the events, and of course the Order itself is alerted. The human opposition in this stage is the tension and competition between the churches, when conflicts of interest take precedence over the suffering of the people. The churches are more interested in debating who gets to try its rituals to solve the situation than alleviating suffering. As always, rituals are inefficient against the ghost - unless someone suggests a common ritual by the two churches. Since the Being is nourishing itself from the traditions of both people, it will take the efforts of both to stop it. But this is of course too abstract a solution to figure out, especially without any clues. The Bard tries to offer another solution.
This time the Bard takes a direct contact with the PCs. Its personality has grown to full maturity, and it can actually converse with them. Its language is old-fashioned, and it resorts to metaphoric speech all the time. The DM should prepare these conversations very carefully, as such an epic figure shouldn't stumble in its words.
The Bard is powerless to stop the influence of the Being in the area of the Channel of Sorrows, but it can fill in the gaps in the knowledge of the PCs. It has only a vague idea of the being, the Grey Stream of Grief is the clearest metaphor it can use. However, it knows that two things must be done to stop it: First, to stop the spreading of horror in the harbour area. Second, close the Spring of Sorrow that the Water-Diviner opened.
The solution to the first puzzle is in the fishermen's community. The embalmed body of the Knight lies under the floor stones of the Mirror Bay Lighthouse. In order for the soul of the knight to get rest, the body must be buried in the ground blessed by the priests of his Order. The Bard can give hints about the body, but the final clues can be given only by the oldest fishermen, whose fathers passed on this knowledge. But merely removing the ghost of the knight doesn't suffice in stopping the Being, the sense of security must be returned to the people of the area. The Bard knows this, but it cannot sing happy songs. The PCs should have an interesting time convincing bar room bards to sing happy ballads to the morose fishermen.
What remains to be done is to close the Grey Stream. The solutions given here are just possibilities, the DM is encouraged to use her/his own ideas. One possibility is to empty the area where the Water-Diviner walked of people for a while, but it is doubtful if the PCs are up to this. In principle a happy festival in the same area would do it too. The basic idea is that the Being is cut off from its source of nourishment.
The Bard, whom the Being gave life, suggest one other point of view: do we have the right to kill the Being of thirst? The Bard doesn't want any harm to befall on the citizens, but it is still grateful to the Being. If there is a solution, the Bard would like to spare its creator. A beautiful solution would be to open up a cemetery at the outskirts of the city. There the Being could devour sorrow in small quantities, and perhaps the images it would create would make the passing of close ones less bitter. There's just the problem that the first good plague would feed it too much.
A grim solution could be inspired by the cult. By gathering a "caravan" or insanely depressed people they could lure the Being away from the city. The Bard could help in building this new Channel. Thus the Being could erupt harmlessly towards a new fate, away from Specularum. This all would be done at the expense of any hope for the insane people.
If the Being is driven off, starved to death or contained, what shall happen to the bard? It will disappear back into the collective unconsciousness of the people of Specularum, leaving being fainting images of possible unification and community. Even years after this the PCs may yet hear someone on the street singing a familiar song, or they may find themself humming a familiar tune. Did someone catch a glimpse of something in the shadows of the tavern, where the bards use to play? Something wavering and sad perhaps.
Sleep tight, and don't brood over you sorrows too much, lest they grow into something larger than life...